Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Awful Roving Toward God

But I will conquer them all
and build a whole nation of God
in me - but united,
build a new soul,
dress it with skin
and then put on my shirt
and sing an anthem,
a song of myself.

– Anne Sexton, "The Civil War," from The Awful Rowing Toward God

"The Architect," Tuesday's Frontline portrait of Karl Rove, was disappointing, largely for its lack of Rove, who declined to participate. An hour consisting mostly of narrative-linked flip-flopping between journalist talking heads and Republican campaign consultant talking heads, it resembled a soft version of FoxSports' Beyond the Glory, without the poignant bits. Except Rove is still in his glory, and we never saw anything but, as the program mapped his rise from Salt Lake City geek to drop-out leader of the College Republicans to Bush's Brain and now, right hand.

We got only a few glimpses at his history of dirty tricks, and none of the really nasty stuff, like the push-polling in South Carolina that suggested John McCain's adopted Bangladeshi daughter was his own black child, fathered out of wedlock. But of course, nobody could pin that on the Bush campaign, since one of Rove's well-honed techniques is to use surrogates for the dirty work, as the documentary did point out.

Another interesting point was how Rove attacks an opponent's strength during the campaign, and John Kerry meets the Swift Boat Veterans was Exhibit A. The few Rove clips showed him clowning for the media — Yoda, not Darth Vader.

You'd think Rove was one of the most powerful men in Washington and Frontline was on a public-funded television network or something. Read the transcript of questions posed to the program's producer Michael Kirk for a flavor of the care with which Rove was handled.

Most disappointing was the program's failure to penetrate Rove's belief system — beyond the importance of creating a permanent conservative Party in Power — especially since he is now White House deputy chief of staff in charge of coordinating domestic policy, economic policy, national security and homeland security.

Then there was life
with its cruel houses
and people who seldom touched —
though touch is all —
but I grew,
like a pig in a trenchcoat I grew...
– Anne Sexton, "Rowing," from The Awful Rowing Toward God

We saw film of Barry Goldwater famously intoning that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice," and a comment that Goldwater's cowboy libertarianism no doubt shaped a young Rove, but no analysis of its relationship to policy initiatives.

We heard David Broder say Rove has a very keen grasp of the forces at play in the nation during the Civil War, but nothing about his views of race or states' rights. We heard a former Log Cabin Republican fund raiser for W — who felt betrayed by Bush's support of the "marriage amendment" — describe the repressed role accepted by gays in the White House, but nothing concrete about Rove's tolerance or lack thereof.

The program alluded to Rove's skill at manipulating fundamentalist Christians for political ends despite his own lack of apparent religious conviction, but didn't interview anyone who could comment from a religious perspective, unless you count Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition, and a career manipulator himself.

We heard a passing comment that Rove has no personal life, yet you wouldn't know from the program that he is married and has a school-age child.

Producer Kirk would say: Not enough time to cover everything.

He also said, "When we make one of our political biographies we try to interview primary sources close to the subject in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of the motivations and actions of the subject. Interviewing political opponents would reveal, from my perspective, less useful information of a partisan nature." Doesn't he see the possibility of partisanship when relying on primary sources who are Republican campaign consultants dependent on continued good party relations?

Kirk concludes his online chat with "we exist to provide serious journalism at a time when that is in short supply."

I didn't expect or want a hatchet job, but I already knew Rove is brilliant at simplifying and formulating issues, and defining and reaching target audiences. The Architect seems to have built a reflective wall around himself, and Frontline couldn't get through the door.

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